Doug George-Kanentiio: Death rituals among the Mohawk people

Traditional Mohawk mourning services typically take place in a longhouse. Photo from Two Row Architect

Passing into the Spirit World: The Mohawk Rituals of Death
By Doug George-Kanentiio

The death (Ohronte in Mohawk) of a family (kawatsireh) member or someone we truly care about is the most tragic of human experiences, yet the ancient teachings of the Iroquois gives the bereaved assurances spirtual consciousness does not end with the demise of the body.

As Iroquois (Onkweh) we are taught our souls are not of this earth but originated in another dimension to which we return when our time on this land is completed.

It is said the movement into physical death takes the soul into warm, living light where we are met by our spiritual guardians and taken along a journey into the sky. We are told this ‘walk along the stars’ follows the path of the Milky Way galaxy.

As the last breath is expelled from the dying the soul rises above the body where it experiences a sense of peace. The soul is aware of the circumstances of death but the initial feelings of trepidation are replaced with a profound sense of release.

Nothing in nature truly ends; the cessation of life in one organism means sustance for another and the subsequent transformation into something else. The Iroquois believe we as humans have been given this form of life so we may become sensual beings, to learn what it is like to understand birth, struggle, love, death and renewal.

Iroquois who have had near death experience recall it as a form of knowing. They tell of rising to an all encompassing light, towards a place without pain where they are greeted by beloved relatives and friends. It is from this place the soul is guided towards a celestial home.

In Iroquois cosmology there is no “heaven” or “hell”, nor is there is singular, all powerful supreme being waiting to exercise divine wrath against those who have violated sectarian law.

There are two forces we acknowledge as “creators”;one with the power to bring beauty and goodness to the earth and the other, a lifetaker and carrier of evil. In Iroquois society the challenge was to achieve goodness by living in a condition of material simplicity while performing acts of kindness.

The resulting peace is called the ‘good mind’ (Kahnekonriio) which, when achieved, makes the transition to the spirit world a simple one.

Those who violate the good Creator’s (Sonkwiiatisohn) instruction by committing acts of evil will suffer by having their souls confined between the spiritual and physical worlds: they are prevented by their own deeds from returning to the Creator but at the same time are helpless witnesses to the living.

It is said there is no greater agony.

By no means did the Iroquois look forward to dying because they believed life was a great gift to be cherished in all of its infinite forms. In addition, traditional Iroquois are taught all people had important obligations to the living which cannot be casually discarded.

In traditional families there is a ten day mourning period which begins when the loved one passes on. If the person who has died is of the wolf clan then the bear and turtle families will take care of the funeral arrangements from the preparing of the body to the exhuming of the grave.

Services are usually held in the communal longhouse with each person sitting according to their respective clan. A speaker, perhaps a chief (rotiiane) or faith keeper (roterihonton), is selected to deliver the words of condolence to the relatives of the deceased from "across the fire".

These words were carefully chosen many generations ago and are meant to relieve sorrow by assuring the mourners their loved one is beyond suffering and in a place where they are being embraced by their ancestors.

The body of the deceased is brought into the longhouse from the eastern door and placed with its feet towards the west. The family of the deceased will sit facing southwards and before the body. The "condoling" speaker will face deceased and speak to the departed, explaining why death has come about and what it must do as it leaves this earth. The speaker will then address the family and offer words of peace and assurance, that the dying of the body was but one phase in all of our experiences. The speaker will remind them that after the 10 day mourning period they must resume their normal responsibilities as life will carry on.

In response, one of the mourners will stand and accept the words of condolence. The clan will acknowledge all of what has been said and agree to return to their duties even as they are burdened with sadness. Thereafter the community, led by the leadership, will view the body and leave the longhouse through the western door, followed by the family of the deceased and then the body itself. They will go to the place of burial where the body will be interred into the ground, feet facing west towards their final journey. A communal meal will follow to celebrate the deceased.

After ten days from the time of death the family will give away all of the possessions of the dead person; nothing is to remain which might become an obsession and thereby prolong grief and interfere with one's obligations towards the living. It is said that too much sadness will also prevent the spirit from taking its celestial journey. The 10 day mourning concludes with a meal in which the favorite foods of the deceased are eaten with one place setting reserved for them. After one year passes a final gathering is held to complete the cycle.

All are encouraged to dwell in peace in knowing that when their life’s journey is complete there will be a ‘welcome’ for them in the spirit world.

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

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